Most of America’s teens and young adults do not follow the daily news closely, according to a new report by the Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government. The report, Young People and News, is based on a national sample survey of 1,800 Americans that included teens (ages 12-17), young adults (ages 18-30), and older adults.
The survey found that teens are significantly less attentive to daily news than young adults, who in turn pay substantially less attention than older adults. The survey found that 28 percent of teens pay almost no attention to daily news and that an additional 32 percent are casually attentive to a single source only. Taken together, 60 percent of teens can be considered basically inattentive to daily news, as compared with 48 percent of young adults and only 23 percent of older adults.
The Shorenstein Center survey found that most young Americans ignore the daily paper. Whereas one in five older adults claimed to be a frequent reader of newspapers, only one in twelve young adults and a mere one in twenty teens said they relied heavily on a newspaper—meaning that they read it somewhat closely on a daily basis.
But despite their stated preference for Internet-based news, teens and young adults were found to be twice as likely to get daily news from television. Moreover, despite claims that young Americans rely heavily on non-traditional television programs, such as Jon Stewart’s The Daily Show, such programs are not a significant source of day-to-day news for the large majority of America’s teens and young adults. When teens and young adults turn to television for news, most of them rely on the same sources as older Americans: broadcast and cable newscasts. The difference is that older Americans are twice as likely as young adults and teens to regularly watch television news daily.
The Internet is making inroads as a news source. Relative to other media, teens and young adults make more use of Internet-based news than do older adults. The caveat is that overall interest in news is so much lower among younger Americans that Internet-based news, in absolute terms, gets roughly the same attention from older adults as it does from young adults and teens.
In comparison with older adults, younger Americans were relatively more attuned to soft news stories (such as the death of Anna Nicole Smith) than to hard news stories (such as the congressional vote on the troop surge in Iraq). In many cases, teens and young adults learned of soft news stories through another person rather than from news coverage directly.
The report notes that the age gap in daily news consumption is partly a result of the penetration of cable and the Internet into American society, which has expanded people’s options. In the pre-cable period, as the scholar Martin Wattenberg’s recent study found, young Americans were nearly as attentive to news as older adults. A University of Connecticut study, sponsored by the Knight Foundation, found “[a] majority of 100,000 American high school students surveyed say they’re plugged into mainstream news on the Internet at least weekly. Eleven percent say they consume news daily on the Internet.”
The survey revealed that radio is an underestimated source of news for Americans of all ages. Among teens, young adults, and older adults alike, radio has a larger inadvertent news audience—people who tune in for something other than news but get the news, too—than any other medium.
The report concludes that some recent surveys have overestimated young people’s news consumption and the capacity of non-traditional media to take up the slack from young people’s flight from traditional news sources. The report concludes that most young people can be expected to continue to do what they have been doing—snatching a bit of news here and there without making it a routine part of their day.